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SACD Review

Kaija Saariaho

La Passion de Simone

Dawn Upshaw, soprano
Dominique Blanc, narrator
Tapiola Chamber Choir
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
Ondine ODE1217-5 Hybrid Multichannel SACD 66:32
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Although it was (opera) director Peter Sellars who actually suggested to Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952), that the French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943) would make a good subject for her music, the composer was already familiar with Weil's life and work, having read the latter's writings since she was young. The result is a striking, convincingly "through-composed", musically- and sonically-balanced oratorio, which Saariaho describes as a "Musical path in fifteen stations". Weil's short life was packed with commitment: to overcoming illness; to resisting prejudice against women; against racism; to the anarchist cause, and that of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War; to opposing the Nazis' grip on her French homeland; to the endurance of proletarian workers in the face of technology as represented by the production line. She effectively converted to Catholicism later in her life, which must be reflected in this structure… note the (usually 14) Stations of the Via Crucis/Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross/Way of Sorrows).

For the Passion De Simone is an intense, harrowing, concentrated yet ultimately uplifting work for soprano solo (Dawn Upshaw), narrator (text lovingly, intimately, spoken by Dominique Blanc – and melodiously), chorus (the Tapiola Chamber Choir), orchestra (the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra) and electronics. The conductor here is Esa-Pekka Salonen. Characteristics of the work are its extreme energy. Its variety. The color with which Saariaho infuses choral, solo and orchestral interplay… listen to the contrast between woodwinds, xylophone and voices in the middle of the Seventh Station [tr.7], for instance. And the superb marriage of purely musical impetus with the need to present the historical-social component of the work as totally digested. Good social science doesn't necessarily translate into good music.

In this case it does. La Passion De Simone now joins several other of Saariaho's works examining female protagonists whose love is consuming and, one is tempted to say, tragic. The sense of the personal is underlined by Upshaw's detached yet committed singing (which runs the gamut from tender to the stridency, for example, of the end of the Eleventh Station [tr.11]) and Blanc's very personal narrative passages. And by the immediacy of the chamber orchestra's presence. Premièred in 2006, this is a live recording from October 2012 in the Helsinki Music Centre.

Salonen moves La Passion De Simone forward at all times – not just at moments such as the huge crescendo at the end of the Sixth Station [tr.6]; but as a principle to pull out the sense of the many threads of Weil's life, work and beliefs, career, realization, progress, and maybe even resolution as the oratorio progresses, for that is an attribute of the form. Although the spoken and sung components of the work necessarily mean it's dramatic in essence and substance, it also has the distance and tone of an oratorio. At times one may be reminded of the "neutrality" which Stravinsky sought in Oedipus Rex: La Passion De Simone is in no way domestic, introverted or maudlin. Much of the music is slow, though it's exciting and beautiful music as much as it's deliberative.

The work has the same almost abstract preoccupations as the great Baroque Passions and is built on tension, on an awareness of unhappiness and the unusual circumstances of Weil's death (she refused treatment and food when diagnosed with tuberculosis) as well as Saariaho's fascination with the discrepancy, the gulf at times, between (Weil's) life and work, which are mirrored by contrasts between (her) interest in mathematics and political forces and spiritual achievements.

None of this is necessarily easy to express in music, even music with speech. Saariaho succeeds splendidly. In ways not dissimilar to those of Gubaidulina in her "St. John Passion", say. But La Passion De Simone is more personal. The fact that the sung and spoken elements are projected as both literal expositions of ideas and feelings as well as more reflective observations aids the impact of the work in terms of the way it has distilled its subject matter. Such a theme (of an individual as determined as she is subject to circumstance) is not new to Saariaho. It's worked through so successfully in no small part because of the way musical components blend… soloists, speaker, orchestra, choir, electronics. It's a format that also facilitates well Saariaho's interest in the essences of sound qua sound. The present production and recording support this admirably. And, given the many different aspects of Weil's life and preoccupations, the work requires a musical unity and wholeness that Salonen elicits almost without apparent effort in the concert performance(s) from which this recording is taken.

This SACD at nearly 70 minutes has superb sound in a rich and spacious acoustic, which aids the sense that we are empathizing with, rather than witnessing, Weil's concerns. The booklet that comes with the CD has a brief background to La Passion De Simone, details of the performers and – most usefully, perhaps – the full libretto by Amin Maalouf in French with English. A new work by Saariaho is a major event as her stature among contemporary composers continues to grow. If you're new to her work, this is an excellent place to start. It's a truly beautiful compelling and engaging very rounded work given a first class performance by musicians who are as technically brilliant in executing it as they are committed to Saariaho's aims. If she's familiar to you, you won't want to overlook this CD. Not least because the composer considers La Passion De Simone to be her most important work to date. It's a splendid testament to the state of contemporary music, and new music of this genre. Unhesitatingly recommended.

Copyright © 2013, Mark Sealey